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Local Government and Housing Bill [Money]

Queen's Recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Local Government and Housing Bill, it is expedient to authorise-- (1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of

(a) any sums required for the payment by the Secretary of State of grants, subsidies or contributions under the Act ;

(b) any sums required by the Secretary of State for fulfilling any guarantees under the Act ;

(c) any other expenses of the Secretary of State under the Act ; and

(d) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums so payable under any other enactment ; and

(2) the payment of any sums received by the Secretary of State under the Act into the Consolidated Fund.

10.13 pm

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen) : Having spent all day observing the ineptitude of the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister for Local Government, the House is now asked to approve the money needed to finance the disgraceful legislation that it has just debated.

We do not view the Bill in isolation, but see it as part of a general attack on the working class and on the working people of our society. We see it also as an attack on the working wage, and on what the Prime Minister defines as Socialism--local authority housing, local authority education, the National Health Service, and the social services. The Prime Minister regards them all as elements of Socialism that must be attacked-- and the ministerial lapdogs are prepared to go through the Lobbies and vote for legislation that serves that purpose. We shall oppose this legislation and certainly not agree to finance what the Government intend to do under it. Although we may refer to the ineptitude of the Government, let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that the Secretary of State is a bumbling idiot. He is far from being that. He is astute, certainly on behalf of those whom he represents.

We recall the Ridley plan which was arranged in detail prior to the miners' strike. Every facet was examined and every possibility was taken into account, including precise details of coal stocks. That all resulted in mines being closed and privatised. This legislation and the money we are being asked to approve are part of the Government's salami tactics to undermine local democracy and attack the living standards of the British people.

We spoke earlier of the way in which 70,000 civil servants will be disfranchised--the Minister did not like me using that word--and not permitted to participate in our democratic processes, simply because of the arbitrary figure of £13,500 being written into the measure. When we questioned why the same provision was not being applied to other areas of society, including this House, the Secretary of State said that Members of Parliament were above reproach and criticism. Yet, as we know, Conservative Members receive vast sums for their directorships and consultancies. Contrast that with local officers earning £13,500 a year. Where is the equality in society? Whatever Conservative Members say about politics on the rates and so on, there is no even-handedness by the Government. Their agents have been acting as officers of local authorities, including Labour- controlled ones,

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putting a brake on the democratic processes by interfering with the ability of councils to carry out their mandates and manifestos. Those people will remain free to continue to impede the democratic processes.

We are being asked to approve money for the introduction of ring fencing. That is bound to increase rents for low-paid members of the community. There are great problems in places like Liverpool in paying housing benefit to the needy. Clearly, the poor will be paying to help the very poor in society. Presumably that is what the Government mean by shifting the burden.

Do the Government seriously expect somebody like me, coming from Liverpool, and particularly the Broadgreen part of it--Liverpool still has 23,000 people on the housing waiting list and no chance of accommodating them--to agree to this money measure?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Considering the council that has been in power in Liverpool for some years, it is not surprising that the city is in a devastated state.

Mr. Fields : The hon. Lady's ignorance is displayed by her attitude.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : The hon. Lady worked there.

Mr. Fields : As in other aspects of her life, she is taking jobs from good Liverpool people.

Overcrowding, homelessness and strains on families are all matters which our Christian Minister for Local Government should be heeding. Indeed, the nature of his speech on Second Reading revealed the scandalous nature of the legislation.

Repairs to council house estates will be further delayed because of the poll tax. I have spoken to the Liverpool city treasurer about the implications of this legislation. Rather than placing a burden on ordinary working people, we have been using a process of capitalisation to reduce expenditure. Under the legislation the housing revenue account will be underfunded to the tune of £30 million, compounding the problem caused by the Government's cutbacks in rate support grant over the years. We used to assist council tenants through subsidised rents.

The Government and the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame Elaine Kellett- Bowman) may criticise Liverpool city council, but we have a programme of urban regeneration under way. Despite what the Government and the district auditors have done--despite the removal of 47 councillors from office--we have built the best part of 5,000 council houses, with gardens back and front. We have built nurseries for our families and sports centres for our deprived youth. Yet tonight we are expected to vote for the money to allow the Government to attack inner-city councils such as ours, with disastrous consequences.

Today we are free to go out and put forward to the electorate a manifesto including a programme of house building, but when the Bill becomes law the Secretary of State will have the so-called discretion to intervene. It is all part of the Government's pathological hatred of Labour-controlled authorities. They are trying to undermine authorities such as Liverpool where the Tory party is only a rump, but the workers will understand that the Tory legislation for which we are being asked to provide money is responsible for cuts meaning that fewer

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people will be able to get council houses and that repairs will not be carried out. As with the poll tax, it will mean even less support for the Government.

Instead of saying yes to the money, we shall be out campaigning all over the country. The Government have their heads in the sand. Already anti-poll tax unions are being set up to provoke resistance to their plans. Trade unions and other workers will campaign in a similar way against the selling off of council properties, housing action trusts, water privatisation and higher water rates.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fields : I have not time to allow any interventions. We got no change out of the hon. Gentleman earlier, and now he will get no change out of me.

We appeal to private as well as local authority tenants. We can go further. We have something going for us : the Labour party is in the process of a policy review. Those who, like myself, see the inadequacies of Government funding will demand that our party starts to consider what we shall do when we come to power. We shall demand a massive house building programme to serve those in need rather than the greed and avarice of those represented on the Conservative Benches.

We shall follow the example of Liverpool. Instead of cod schemes and phoney rates of pay, we shall want to give people decent jobs on trade union rates and to reduce the unemployment registers. We are proud of our record in Liverpool. Conservative Members may sneer, but we have built houses, put people to work and set up nurseries. This legislation will do nothing to help the workers.

We shall not say yes to this money, but we shall talk about money as part of our policy review. There will be agitation in the Labour party in favour of taking over the banks, insurance companies and finance houses at their expense. [Laughter.] Tory Members may laugh, but it is a laugh of embarrassment. They know that when Socialism takes off in this country their days will be numbered, as will those of the people whom they represent.

In saying no to the legislation and the money, we warn the Government, who have turned the screw on the workers and continue to do so, to watch out. The workers are getting up from their knees, and when they have done so the Government's days will be numbered. 10.24 pm

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : The voice of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) is a minority in the House, but his views have much support in the Labour party nationally. That is why the activists in the Labour party throughout the country who talk in the rhetoric of the class war of the 1930s have managed to make the Labour party unelectable. When Socialism was in action in Liverpool, the Labour- controlled council was sending redundancy notices by taxi cab to the work force of the Liverpool city council. We also know that the city council ranks No. 1 in the country for the number of council properties standing empty. One house in 10 owned by the city council stands empty and uninhabitable because of a Left-wing, Hattonist, Trotskyite, Militant council, of which the hon. Member for Broadgreen is a representative, which votes for the destruction of Liverpool.

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Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I had the humiliating experience of taking a delegation from the European Parliament regional affairs committee round some of that property in Liverpool when the Labour Government were in office. An Italian Socialist asked me, "What has lived in these houses-- pigs?"

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Liverpool city council has made it its policy to make sure that its tenants live in serfdom, and to drive away from Liverpool any chance of industry and enterprise because of its absolute adherence to the trade unions and the far Left.

Liverpool city council has destroyed the core of Liverpool. It has destroyed jobs and housing and brought that noble city to the edge of bankruptcy. The hon. Member for Broadgreen lectures the House on how to run the country, but his views carry weight in the Labour party and we must pay attention to them because at the next general election the activists in the Labour party will be spouting such nonsense and the public will reject them for the fourth time.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) : I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is quite right that a considerable number of houses in Liverpool are in need of maintenance and repair. That is perfectly true, but is he aware that between 1973 and 1983 Liverpool city council was controlled not by the Labour party but by the Liberal party, with the assistance of the Tory party, or what was left of it in Liverpool? Instead of investing in houses that people could afford to rent, they decided to build houses for sale. They failed to use the rising rate support grant that was provided for the city of Liverpool throughout the 1974-79 Labour Government.

Mr. Bennett : Whatever the Liberal-controlled Liverpool city council did during those years, it did not take illegal actions. It did not have a deputy leader with his own army that went around intimidating other political parties as the Trotskyite Militant Liverpool city council did. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) would not attack the Liberals, because only yesterday, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) announced that the Labour party was willing to have pacts with the Liberals in the council elections.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : In the interests of accuracy, because the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) has mentioned it twice, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made it clear that that was not correct and the Press Association issued an apology.

Mr. Terry Fields : The hon. Gentleman should apologise as well.

Mr. Bennett : I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong as my remarks were based on what the Press Association said. It would not surprise us if there were pacts with the Liberal party because for the past four years county councils that have been run in alliance with the Liberal party have imposed massive rate rises and increases in staff. We know that between 1977 and 1979 the Labour and Liberal parties ran an alliance in the House

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : My constituency suffers from just such a council. Were it not raiding every conceivable reserve, the projected rate rise for next year would be 49 per cent.

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Mr. Bennett : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing us with yet another example of Liberal good housekeeping--suspending everything just before an election campaign is due.

I want to make two relatively non-controversial points about the Bill. I welcome the DOE's moves on low-cost rural housing, which are of particular interest in my constituency, in which there are considerable housing problems among the low paid. Secondly, I welcome the fact that improvement grants will in future be linked to income. One of the problems facing local authorities is that they often run out of such grants early in the year and cannot supply cash to people who have applied for it--regardless of whether they can afford to renovate their properties. Cash-linking improvement grants to people's incomes will enable us to target the money on the lower paid, who, as we know from survey after survey, tend to live in the worst sort of housing.

I believe that local government is vital to this country. I served for eight years on a London borough council--three of them as leader of the opposition--and for three years as a member of ILEA. Central Government cannot do everything ; it relies on local government to provide local services and to be aware of local needs. But local government needs to remember that it was created by statute, and it is not co-equal with central Government. The problem with the GLC, South Yorkshire and some other local authorities around the country was that they thought they were co-equal and could challenge the Government on major matters of economic policy while running little Soviet states in the United Kingdom. Local government has a job to do and must remember to work in partnership with central Government ; it must not pretend that it is central Government and try to take over their role.

I particularly welcome the campaign to end twin tracking which has been launched as a result of the Bill. It is scandalous that serving officers of one authority are often appointed by that

authority--because they are Labour councillors--to sinecures, while serving as councillors in other authorities. They give advice to councillors in their capacity as officers in one authority, and then go out the same evening to their own authorities to take part in political decisions. No one can have any confidence in officers who are party political councillors in other boroughs--

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Bennett : The hon. Gentleman was not here for the Second Reading. He always turns up late at night to conduct his guerrilla campaign. Perhaps if he took more part in the day-to-day affairs of the House, and served on a few Standing Committees he might win a little more respect from the rest of us.

Examples of the sort of abuses I have described are legion. The leader of Brent council, Mr. Dorman Long, is employed by Lambeth council as a race relations officer. The chair of the travellers committee, Councillor Moleney, is employed as a travellers warden by next-door Ealing council. Councillor Esmie Sargeant, who works for Ealing's women's unit, chairs the housing committee in Brent--

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : What is the function of the travellers committee?

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Mr. Bennett : It is something to do with gipsies. Quite why they need a committee and chair--whatever that is--to look after them I do not know. It is certainly strange that the chairman of a committee to do with travellers can be warden of another similar committee in a neighbouring borough.

The chairman of the housing committee in Brent is a legal officer in Southwark. The erstwhile leader of Bradford city council, now leader of the opposition there, is employed as an anti-privatisation adviser by next-door Wakefield district council. The leader of Barnsley council worked for Sheffield council and the leader of Sheffield council worked for Barnsley. I give way to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

Mr. Cryer : I am most grateful. The hon. Gentleman will of course know that I chaired a Select Committee today, and I do not think anybody in this House will deny that I play as full a part as any other Member, so his cheap, snide remarks are wasted.

Can I ask him if he thinks that, when people go to Sir Jeffrey Sterling for advice, they feel they are getting impartial advice, when he is an adviser to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and gets involved in transport issues? Is he also aware that the leader of the Tory-controlled Bradford council is or was actually employed by Conservative party central office? Does he think that people got impartial advice from the leader of the Tory opposition?

Mr. Bennett : The hon. Member for Bradford, South is not able to distinguish between people who are employed at taxpayers' expense on one authority while being councillors on another, and people who are employed as advisers to the Conservative party, usually at no cost, and who have no public position. Sir Jeffrey Sterling has no public position, and what he does with his spare time is surely his business.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South can talk about moonlighting ; he is also a Member of the European Parliament, with two incomes. When he addressed us the other night he was saying how no Minister should be paid more than an ordinary Member of Parliament. When he was a Minister he got paid as a Minister. He is adopting different policies, twin tracking on principles, when he is in opposition. We take no lectures from the hon. Member when it comes to two incomes and doing two different jobs.

There are other examples of abuse. In Camden council, for instance, the director of social services, Patrick Kodikara, is also a member of Hackney social services committee. In Camden at one time 48 per cent. of the Labour councillors were working for other authorities. So we see the corruption that goes on.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bennett : No, I am not giving way. The hon. Member was also not here for the Second Reading. If Labour Members are really interested in local government they can turn up at 4 o'clock and sit through the debate, instead of arriving at half past 10. I am not giving way. The fact is that we are seeing corruption in local government ; we are seeing the Labour party appointing its own councillors to well-paid jobs.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member has given a whole list of persons appointed by one authority while being

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councillors in another, and he went on to refer to the word "corruption". I think he ought to make it clear whether he is referring to them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : That is a matter of argument, not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Bennett : I think that it is corrupt when the London borough of Hackney has on its shortlist two Lambeth Labour councillors for the job of deputy chief executive, neither of whom appears to have much in the way of academic qualifications for the particular job, and one of them gets the job. It seems to me that we have to end this twin tracking to ensure that councillors are elected as party politicians and do their job, but are not able at the same time to go to another Labour-controlled authority to get their mates to give them a well-paid job.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : Is my hon. Friend aware that sometimes this does not quite work out, and that occasionally county councils appoint somebody at a very senior level who has formerly been a Labour Member of Parliament, and this great love relationship actually has a very short life span, as happened in Derbyshire, when the county council appointed a Mr. Reg Race, and somehow within nine months he had gone. They sacked him or he resigned or something like that.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : How much did they pay him?

Mr. McLoughlin : The Minister asks how much he was paid. I have no idea. It is an official secret in Derbyshire. These love affairs do not always last the course. Derbyshire was one. The Government are really trying in the Bill to protect the Labour party from its own follies.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is very interesting, but surely it would be more appropriate for a Second Reading debate. We are supposed to be debating the money resolution. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is dealing with matters that go much wider than the money resolution.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The debate on a money resolution is fairly wide, but I should like to hear a little more about money in this debate.

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) has just been talking about the money that the ratepayers of Derbyshire had to pay out to this person, Reg Race. The public are not being told how much Derbyshire county council paid out for his very short sojourn as a council official. My hon. Friend has made it clear why his majority shot up at the last general election and why Derbyshire will become a Conservative county council in May of this year.

The money that is to be spent as a result of the Bill will be well spent on preventing local authorities from having one-sided, totally unbalanced committees. I welcome clause 13, which refers to the need for local authority committees to have a proper party political composition. When I was the leader of the opposition on the London borough of Lewisham we were excluded from the council's policy committee. That committee fixes the local authority rate each year. As elected councillors, 23 of us were not allowed to take part in the rate-fixing discussions. We

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knew what our local authority rate was only when we saw it in a press release. That is not the way to treat opposition members of local authorities. I am glad, therefore, that clause 13 tackles that point.

We must ensure that councillors who run up massive rate and rent arrears are debarred from office. It is a scandal that the chairman of the Lambeth housing committee owes her authority £2,000 in rent and rates. Before any Opposition Member says that she may be hard up, I should point out that she collected £28,000 in council attendance allowances last year. Even so, she does not pay her rent and rates to her local authority. What can we say to the people of Lambeth when their elected councillors do not pay their rent and rates?

Mr. Tony Banks : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I return to the point that I made earlier. What does this have to do with the money resolution?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will leave these matters to the Chair.

Mr. Bennett : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You distinctly heard me say money.

Mr. Banks : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. This is a very short debate. The hon. Gentleman is getting very close to disputing the judgment of the Chair.

Mr. Banks : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not challenging your ruling in any way whatsoever. I am asking you whether it is in order for an hon. Member to make personal attacks on the financial position of a member of a local authority in the way that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) has just done. I think that it is out of order in this House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) has said nothing so far that is out of order, but I know that he will recognise that other hon. Members wish to speak in this short debate.

Mr. Bennett : I have attempted to speak as quickly as I can because I want to be generous to the Opposition.

On the Order Paper today there is a motion standing in my name and the names of five of my hon. Friends concerning Coventry city council. It relates to two of my constituents in Pembrokeshire who owned a shop in Coventry. They were forced by Coventry city council, which is Labour controlled, to surrender their lease to the city council for £20,000, despite the fact that they had been offered £37, 000 by a company to take over their shop. A few months later, Coventry city council, having forced my constituents to sell their lease for £20,000, sold the same lease to the same company for £51, 000, having swindled my constituents out of £17,000.

Coventry city council has been found guilty twice by the ombudsman of maladministration. On both occasions it has ignored his reports. When I intervened during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he said that publicity would deal with that. I regret that publicity does not get at the hard-nosed, Left-wing Labour councillors on the council who are defying the ombudsman. I urge the Minister to make sure that the Bill

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contains powers to force local government officers and councils found guilty of maladministration to pay the constituents they have injured.

10.45 pm

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) : I should like to say why we should not be voting money to allow the Government to proceed to obliterate local government. In giving the reasons, I want to concentrate on this Bill's implications for racial equality. This aspect has not been mentioned in the House, and I should like some time to raise several points.

Before doing so may I comment on something that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) said? He talked about twin tracking, about people getting jobs with one council and being members of another. Perhaps one good reason that a local authority has for employing councillors is that they are the best people for the job. [Laughter.] I willingly agree that it is an old-fashioned reason for appointing people, but it is a fact that people get jobs because they are the best-qualified.

In this case, one of the reasons for their being the best-qualified is precisely that they have experience in a particular section of local government that may not have been discussed or worked on before. I refer, of course, to areas such as race discrimination, sex discrimination, disability and so on, where new policies have to be made to ensure that disadvantaged people in those local authority areas get a fair return for the rates that they pay.

Hon. Members opposite talk about the golden days of local government. In those golden days, no concern was ever shown for black people, or for women, or for people with disabilities, or for any other disadvantaged group. One of the reasons those councillors get jobs in local government is that they have experience in precisely those areas, and these are the areas that are very important for large numbers of people.

Mr. Cryer : Does my hon. Friend accept that the attitude displayed in the Bill is not supported by the Prime Minister's political activities? Since 1981 the Prime Minister, in her office alone, has spent over £1.3 million of taxpayers' money to pay the salaries of political advisers. What is good enough for the taxpayer, she says, is not good enough for the ratepayer. She is spending far and away more than any local authority ever contemplates spending.

Mr. Grant : Of course I agree with my hon. Friend.

I should like to deal with some issues of race, and I hope that the Minister will listen, because these issues have not been mentioned before. There are four particular clauses on which I want to touch--clause 1, which deals with political restrictions on officers and staff ; clause 11, which deals with the voting rights of members of some committees ; clause 25, which concerns the promotion of economic development ; and clause 28, which amends the existing power to incur discretionary expenditure.

On clause 1, I think everyone should be heartened by the increase in the numbers of black and ethnic minority councillors over the last decade and by the beneficial effect that this has had by improving race relations. It is a fact, however, that the black and ethnic minority communities are still seriously under-represented in local government, and this clause will have a deterrent effect on black and ethnic minority participation in party political activity and on any public activity that could be construed as political.

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I am further concerned by the disproportionate effect that this clause will have on black and ethnic minority officers who are already councillors on another authority. Given that local authorities are more likely to operate equal opportunities policies in employment, the number of black and ethnic minority councillors in local government employ is not surprising.

By pushing through the Bill, the Government will punish local government officers for getting jobs under equal opportunity policies on the one hand, and on the other they will punish local authorities which have brought in equal opportunities policies by forcing the black officers whom they have taken on to give up as councillors or to leave their jobs. In such a situation, why should we pay any money to the Government to carry on like that?

The catch-all nature of the definition of persons regarded as holding politically restricted posts causes further difficulties by setting a threshold for remuneration at £13,500 per annum. In effect, the Government are setting a cut-off point in salary equivalent to the grade of principal officer. Because of London weighting allowance, people in London who are not principal officers may be caught in the trap. I refer to dustmen or school caretakers, or people who work for direct labour organisations as carpenters. All those people could suddenly find themselves unable to run for council because they are earning more than £13,500 per annum. As a result of equal opportunities policies, a substantial number of balck and ethnic minority people are in those grades and they will be punished by the Government for getting those positions. In those circumstances, why should we give the Government money to carry out these policies? It is uncertain whether the regulations to be made by the Secretary of State to restrict the political activity of local government officers will relate to party political activity or to public political activity. If it is public political activity, it will deprive bodies such as community relations councils of the voluntary services of local government officers, because community relations activity could be deemed to be public political activity. Indeed, in some areas Conservative councils deem that if a person is working in a voluntary capacity for a community relations council that person is somehow a demon or a political henchman who is there to upset the position of the council.

The impact of these clauses on the promotion of equality of opportunity and good race relations will be twofold. First, they could lead to local authorities being denied the opportunity to make the best appointments designed to help them fulfil their duties under section 71 of the Race Relations Act 1976. Secondly, they will deprive staff in the politically restricted group of the opportunity to influence local change, designed to improve relations between persons of different racial groups.

I understand that clause 1 may be against article 10(1) of the European convention on human rights, which says basically that no public authority should deny citizens their right to partake in political activity. If that is the case--our brief legal opinion is that it could be--we shall take all the necessary steps to protect the rights of ordinary people.

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